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December 18, 2017

To die for a cause


December 18, 2017

During the colonial period, there emerged two groups with different approaches to the struggle for freedom. In the first category were political parties that mostly consisted of the upper middle classes whose agenda was to negotiate with the government and demand their political share in administrative institutions. Most of them were professionals who were Western educated and strict followers of the legal system.

On the other hand, after the partition of Bengal in 1905 there surfaced some groups that were not in favour of negotiations but of resistance against colonial designs, which had divided Bengal to break its unity and weaken Bengali nationalism. The Bengal division had also created differences between Muslims and Hindus as East Bengal was a Muslim-majority area while the west was Hindu majority.

In the first part of the resistance movement, there were efforts to boycott all British manufacturing goods and adopting a policy of non-cooperation. When that failed to pressurise the government to fulfil their demands, different militant groups were organised to threaten the colonial administration, and to assert their power and show that they were capable of disrupting the colonial structure.

In late 1923, some young people organised the ‘Hindustan Republican Association’ with the aim to liberate the country from foreign rule. The members of the group were both Hindus and Muslims with revolutionary ideals of struggle and a fight to get rid of colonial rule. However, these young revolutionaries failed to understand the structure of the colonial state. It was not only the British who were ruling and controlling the affairs of India. The British had the full collaboration and cooperation of many Indians who had joined the army, the police, agencies and the administrative setup as loyal and faithful servants. Therefore, the struggle of the revolutionaries was not only against the British but also against their Indian collaborators.

In traditional history, the credit for the independence of India and Pakistan is generally attributed to the Congress in India and the Muslim League in Pakistan. All the other groups that struggled, resisted and sacrificed for the sake of India’s freedom are either ignored or marginalised. The reason for silencing their role in history is that both the Congress and the Muslim League were the parties of the status quo, and they continued this status quo after the end of the British Raj. It was not in their interest to encourage and promote radical elements in society.

Now after such a long time has passed, Indian historians are making efforts to bring to light the forgotten history of resistance and of those who died struggling against colonial rule and trying bring a change in the lives of common people who were exploited, oppressed and humiliated for a hundred years.

Recently, a book by Waqar Siddiqui traced the role of two revolutionary young leaders – Ram Parshad Bismil and Ashfaq Ullah Khan Hasrat. Both joined the Republican Association with a revolutionary zeal for the liberation of their country. The party instructed them to stop a train at the Kakori Railway Station on August 9, 1925. The train, carrying money belonging to the British Government Treasury, was robbed for their revolutionary cause. They were successful in their mission, but during the act, an English officer was killed by them. Though they escaped from the spot and hid at different places to escape from the police, spies traced them out and arrested them. When their case was tried and they were given the death sentence both young men faced it bravely.

When Bismil was imprisoned, he endured all the difficulties that came his way without any complaint. He also wrote his autobiography, describing the poverty of his family and his involvement in revolutionary activities.

In the secluded life of his prison, he revised his political ideas and expressed that the revolutionary task that was carried on by small groups and individuals could not be successful and accomplished without the support of the common people. If there was no popular support, it was easy for the government to crush and eliminate these groups. He also lamented that on the arrest and death sentence of individual revolutionaries like him, no major political parties or prominent leaders raise any voice in their favour. In his and Hasrat’s case too, there was complete silence – not even a public protest. Everyone left them to face death without any sympathy and sorrow.

After his execution, Bismil’s family suffered immensely. Relatives and neighbours ceased to meet his family members, fearing state reprisal. His father died in poverty and his mother survived without any financial support, till a small amount was granted by the Indian state after Independence. Ashfaq Ullah Khan was also hanged and left an unfinished autobiography.

What is the lesson of this history? It is evident that a revolutionary movement against either foreign rule or against the status quo of a government cannot be successful without creating political consciousness among the people.

In the past, the aim of revolutionary groups was to overthrow oppressive governments by using militancy and assassinations. However, these movements – such as the Red Army of Japan and Baader Meinhof of Germany – failed to attract larger popular support to achieve their objects. Therefore, for the success of any movement, popular support is required; this will involve common people in the struggle for their fundamental rights.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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